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Monday, November 23, 2009

Exiled Thaksin in Cambodia kicks up trouble for Thailand

Ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has long provoked Thailand's government by rousing opposition at home. Now he's inflamed regional tensions by becoming an economic adviser to rival Cambodia.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia - At a luxury guesthouse, Cambodia's newest government adviser picks up a copy of his latest book, "Tackling Poverty." It explores how lessons from Thailand can be applied to other developing countries.

"I help tackle poverty worldwide, wherever they need me. Why not my neighbor?" asks Thaksin Shinawatra, the author.

But Mr. Thaksin, a Thai prime minister ousted by a coup in 2006, is no ordinary consultant – and he knows it. The politician's electoral successes antagonized Bangkok's royalist elite. Now, exiled in Dubai and wanted at home on a corruption-related conviction, Thaksin remains a political player who courts controversy.

His recent appointment as an adviser here has injected a new and potentially destabilizing element spilling beyond his home country. A five-day visit earlier this month to Cambodia, which shares a border and centuries of rivalry with Thailand, provoked a nationalist uproar in Bangkok. Both countries withdrew their ambassadors. Thailand tore up a maritime treaty and threatened to seal the border, where rival armies already face off over a disputed Hindu temple. Cambodia later expelled a diplomat for spying.

So far, the diplomatic tensions haven't spilled over to the temple site. The area is one of several poorly demarcated borders that Thailand shares with its neighbors and where sovereignty claims have flared into armed clashes, though rarely for long.

In Cambodia the border also evokes memories of Thailand's arming of the murderous Khmer Rouge during a civil war that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen fought mostly on the opposite side. He has argued that Thailand has no right to demand Thaksin's extradition because it used to shelter senior Khmer Rouge leaders.

Thailand and Cambodia belong to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). But the Thai government has resisted mediation by the 10-nation bloc.

That leaves the two neighbors at loggerheads over Thaksin. A court in Bangkok is expected to rule next month on the confiscation of more than $2 billion of his frozen money. The case is separate from his 2008 conviction and two-year jail term. But Prime Minsiter Hun Sen has offered Thaksin sanctuary and rejected Thailand's request for extradition.

Feted in Cambodia

Arriving by private jet, Thaksin was given a lavish reception at Hun Sen's heavily guarded compound outside the Cambodian capital. On Nov. 12, he gave a talk to 300 civil servants on economic policy that was broadcast on state television.

Some analysts say the sight of Hun Sen embracing Thaksin as an "eternal friend" plays into the hands of critics who label him a traitorous opportunist. Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has tried to capitalize on this nationalist anger by talking tough against Cambodia.

"One of the only ways to unite this incredibly divided country is to give them a common enemy," says a Bangkok-based diplomat.

But the row is unlikely to sway Thaksin's large base of supporters, who see him as a political victim. By popping up in Cambodia, which borders Thailand's pro-Thaksin northeast, he has given them fresh hope that he will return.

In an interview, Thaksin says his critics have a "Cold war mindset" toward Cambodia, a smaller neighbor, and argues that economic success there will eventually benefit Thailand. He claims not to be worried by the Thai government's efforts to bring him home.

"It's clear it's [the conviction] politically motivated. The more you try to extradite me, the more you will make the justice system look ugly," he says.

From Dubai, Thaksin travels regularly as a private businessman to Africa and the Pacific. After Mr. Abhisit revoked his Thai passport, he switched to Nicaraguan and Montenegro ones.

But visiting Cambodia with the backing of its leader is far more provocative, given the proximity and tensions between the countries. It also flies in the face of ASEAN's long-held principle that members don't interfere in one another's domestic politics.

Thaksin says that he also made an unannounced visit to Thailand's southern neighbor Malaysia earlier this year, though he didn't meet the prime minister. Thai media has reported previous trips to Cambodia, which Thaksin denies making.

At times, though, his bravado seems tempered by concerns of a backlash among Thais. Asked if Cambodia would become a new base of operations, he shook his head.

"If I were to come back, I would come back quietly and not so often. I don't want the Thai government to be so nervous," he says.

Why Cambodia wants him

To Hun Sen, this nervousness may spell opportunity, says Nidhi Eoseewong, a retired Thai historian. While Thaksin wants to stay in the limelight, Hun Sen is turning Thailand's deep political divisions to his advantage.

Hun Sen "wants to prolong the weakness in Thailand. He's very smart," Mr. Nidhi says.

However, a Cambodian observer, who requested anonymity, says that Hun Sen is driven primarily by frustration over Thai obstruction of Cambodia's plans for the border temple, Preah Vihear. He may have concluded that no favorable resolution is possible with Mr. Abhisit's government, unless international mediators are involved.

For his part, Thaksin describes his alliance with Cambodia's strongman in plainer terms. "I'm unemployed. He's my friend," he says.
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Abhisit government lacks political maturity - Cambodia

By Supalak Ganjanakhundee
The Nation

Cambodia defends control of CATS as Siwarak admits to report of Thaksin flight plan

Cambodia yesterday lashed out at the Thai government over an allegation of taking control of the Thai-owned air-traffic-control company.

Meanwhile, a detained employee of the company confessed to a Cambodian court yesterday about leaking ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's flight information to a Thai diplomat.

Cambodian authorities temporarily controlled Cambodia Air Traffic Service (CATS) operations for national-security reasons until the case of its employee, Siwarak Chotipong, who has been accused of spying, comes to an end, a statement in Phnom Penh said.

"Cambodia always fulfils agreements it signs, including agreements with the private sector, so as to enhance the confidence of local and foreign investors, including Thai investors," the statement said.

"Without a firm position concerning the respect for agreements and having violated the principles of international law, the Abhisit [Vejjajiva] government must think that Cambodia will follow Thailand's way," it said.

Cambodia accused the Thai government of failure to honour the 1962 ruling on Preah Vihear Temple by the International Court of Justice and a maritime deal signed in 2001.

CATS is at the core of the conflict between Thailand and Cambodia. Its employee was arrested on November 12 as Thaksin arrived in Cambodia to give a lecture on economic development strategy to government economists and the business sector.

Siwarak admitted he had reported Thaksin's flight plan to the Thai Embassy's first secretary, Kamrob Palawatwichai, 10 minutes after Thaksin landed in Phnom Penh on November 10, defence lawyer Kao Soupha said.

Siwarak did not know at the beginning that Thaksin was on the plane, the lawyer said.

"My client did not spy on Thaksin, since it is his responsibility as the official of the air-traffic-control company to know about the flight information," Kao Soupha said in a phone interview from Phnom Penh.

Siwarak has worked for the company for about eight years and knows very well that flight information is no secret, the lawyer said.

What Siwarak disclosed to the people who asked him about the matter was a confirmation that a charter flight had landed at Phnom Penh Airport.

The Thai employee did not pay attention to Thaksin's visit to Cambodia, because Siwarak was not in the country four days before the fugitive ex-premier landed in Phnom Penh, Soupha said.

"If he had really wanted to spy on Thaksin, he would not leave Cambodia, because Thaksin was about to arrive in the country," the lawyer said.

Siwarak is being held in pretrial detention at Prey Sor Prison, although a date for his trial has yet to be officially announced.

Soupha said he had filed a bail request for him yesterday and guaranteed Siwarak would not return to Thailand during the court trial. The court has 10 days to consider the bail request, he said.

The lawyer expects the Cambodian court will rule on December 8.

Thai authorities are going all out to provide assistance to Siwarak. A delegation from the Justice Ministry visited Cambodia yesterday, while representatives of the Law Society of Thailand and the Foreign Ministry will land in Phnom Penh today to see him.

His mother, Simarak na Nakhon Phanom, will have a chance to see him this week, a Thai Foreign Ministry official said.

Meanwhile, the local authority in Cambodia's Koh Kong province yesterday sealed its sea, barring Thai fishery trawlers from its water.

Thai Navy commander Admiral Kamthorn Phumhiran said fishery concessions granted earlier to Thai boats were terminated, because Cambodia had changed the Koh Kong governor.

It is a norm of Cambodia to review the concession each time people in authority are changed out, he said.

Kamthorn said the termination of the fishery concession had nothing to do with the ongoing diplomatic row between the two countries and that the concession would be renewed once the new governor was firmly in charge.

Koh Kong's new governor, Lert Promkesorn, will take his time to study the fishery concession before deciding whether to renew it, a source said.
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Samart sees positive signs in Cambodia

By The Nation

Samart feels that the issue of its wholly owned subsidiary Cambodia Air Traffic Services (CATS) is looking positive.

In a press release yesterday, Samart president Watchai Vilailuck said the company had heard government reports that the Cambodia government had no plans to either seize or buy back the CATS concession.

Watchai said that though they were not yet able to fully resolve problems related to imprisoned CATS engineer Siwarak Chutipong, the company believed that the Cambodian government's statement on the concession was a good sign.

Yesterday, Cambodia issued a statement saying that it always fulfils agreements it has signed, including contracts with the private sector, so as to boost the confidence of local and foreign investors, including Thai businesses.

In the press release, Watchai said that Samart felt uneasy that it had been drawn into a political conflict and hoped the situation would be resolved as soon as possible so CATS could resume its operations.

Samart also notified the Stock Exchange of Thailand yesterday that after Siwarak's arrest over spying charges, the Cambodian government had appointed a senior civil aviation official as a temporary chief to oversee CATS operations. The statement from Cambodian government also said that its officials were put in place temporarily to supervise and manage CATS so they could protect national security and safety of Cambodian leaders. Cambodian officials will continue running CATS until the court reaches a final decision on Siwarak.

Samart has been working closely with the Thai government to help negotiate Siwarak's release and resolve the problems.

The CATS engineer was arrested about two weeks ago for allegedly trying to obtain fugitive former PM Thaksin Shinawatra's flight schedule. Since Cambodia took control of CATS, the nine or 10 Thai employees have not been allowed on the premises.

CATS has been operating the air-traffic control services as part of a 32-year concession from 2001 under a build, co-operate and transfer model with the Cambodian government. Revenue from the operations this year is about Bt800 million, accounting for 5 per cent of the Samart Group's consolidated earnings. CATS is also protected by the Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement between the two countries.

Samart shares closed at Bt6.05 yesterday, up from Bt6 on Friday.

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